WASHINGTON — The issue is not how many of his assigned duties George Bush actually performed in the Air National Guard. Nor is the issue why Bush refused his periodic physical examination and stopped flying in 1972 shortly after drug testing was introduced - a coincidence, the White House says.
The real issue, painful in a society that prides itself on being egalitarian, is privilege - who got to serve in the Guard's "champagne unit" as his unit was called, and who went to Vietnam, perhaps to die.
It was all inside and cozy back in Texas then. Lloyd Bentsen III, son of a future senator, got a coveted slot in the Houston-based guard unit. John Connally III, son of the former governor, got another. And in 1968, George Bush, son of Houston's congressman, made it after Ben Barnes, Speaker of the Texas House, talked to the head of the National Guard on the young man's behalf. Bush's first solo flight made headlines in the Houston papers.
No one expresses himself more passionately about this kind of favoritism than Colin Powell, who came up from the streets of the Bronx and is now President Bush's secretary of State. In his 1995 memoir, "My American Journey," General Powell wrote: "I particularly condemn the way our political leaders supplied the manpower for that war [The Vietnam War]. The policies determining who would be drafted and who would be deferred, who would serve and who would escape, who would die and who would live, were an anti-democratic disgrace.... I am angry that so many sons of the powerful and well-placed ... managed to wangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units. Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal and owe equal allegiance to our country."
Powell couldn't have realized in 1995, as Joint Chiefs chairman, that he'd be talking about, among others, his future commander in chief, who was one of the privileged and well-placed.
There is some irony in the fact that the Bush National Guard controversy has come bubbling to the surface just as the president announces that he is "a war president."
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.